Yankees extend HOPE Week to affiliates

Yankees extend HOPE Week to affiliates

Yankees extend HOPE Week to affiliates
TAMPA, Fla. -- For the first time, the Yankees extended their HOPE Week (Helping Others Persevere and Excel) initiative -- through which the organization gives back to the community -- to each of their Minor League affiliates.

Members of the Gulf Coast League Yankees, along with a few Double-A Trenton players in the area rehabbing, kicked things off Monday when a handful of players visited the nonprofit organization Warriors for Autism, which holds a summer camp in Tampa.

"I think it's great for us to take a break from baseball, come out here and participate in a great program in HOPE Week," Jeremy Bleich said. "You see a little bit about it on TV and learn a little bit about it, mostly in New York. I think it's really cool that they've started it at every level. It's cool for us to come out here and just be a part of the community, give back and see smiles on kids faces."

Players spent the day with children, riding horses, coloring and making masks, and they even visited a petting zoo, though shortstop Claudio Custodio was a bit unfortunate with the animals. As he was feeding some of the animals, he allowed a chicken to eat straight from the cup, but it took the cup right from his hand.

The group even spent time with a camel, something pitcher Dawerd Cruz didn't see very many of in the Dominican Republic. He was nervous about approaching it at first, joking he didn't want his hand to be eaten, but carried a smile all the while. In the end, the players appeared to have just as much fun as the kids.

Autism is a neural disorder that often causes problems in communication and social skills and can often affect not only those with the disorder, but families as well. Pitcher Graham Stoneburner said he was happy to give up his time to help the children in need.

"Their life is not easy at all, especially compared to my life and the lives of a lot of my teammates," Stoneburner said. "Our struggles in baseball don't match at all in their everyday struggles in life -- for the individual and their family -- so it's good to see them have fun and have a smile on their face."

Warriors for Autism was founded by Deena Rivera because of the need she saw for families that raise autistic children from her own experiences with her son. It originally started by raising funds for other organizations, and is now entering its second year of holding a summer camp for youths.

Rivera said she felt the need to assist families -- Hispanic ones particularly -- in providing an affordable summer camp for both autistic youths and their siblings, something many other camps don't provide. One way is to do that through baseball.

"I'm trying to use that platform to reach out to them, let them know we're here, we're bilingual," Rivera said. "Because of the fear they have with the language barrier, they're not open to what is out there."

Throughout the summer, the camp also aims to provide education to its members with lessons taught by a teacher with a background in special needs. It also teaches physical skills like swimming and riding horses.

The days can be exhausting at times, but when she receives an email or voicemail from a parent expressing how much their child liked the camp, she knows it was well worth it.

"They really feel such a sense of a relief that there's somewhere comfortable they can leave their kids," Rivera said. "The kids go home dirty with a smile on their face every single day. The animals are so good for them, and they're so good for the animals."

HOPE Week continues Tuesday, when the Yankees travel to the Police Athletic League of Tampa, where the team will speak to children and hold a mini baseball clinic.

Greg Zeck is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.